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Plans are in works to restore symphony's Robert Morton organ, a neglected gem
By Valerie Scher
UNION-TRIBUNE CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC
June 22, 2008
The cream-colored paint is chipped, the ivory keys yellowed with age.
But don't be fooled by appearances. The San Diego Symphony's historic Robert Morton organ is a wondrous instrument.
JOHN R. MCCUTCHEN / Union-Tribune
"There's nothing more exciting than hearing the sound of an organ added to the sound of an orchestra," says organ expert Manuel J. Rosales, seated at the San Diego Symphony's historic instrument.
In addition to four keyboards and 2,500 pipes, it has about 80 stops that produce sound effects ranging from trumpet to tuba, voice to church bells. This type of 1920s-era organ also has tremendous sonic power. When the symphony performed Strauss' “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” in March, it achieved a majestic fortissimo that drowned out the approximately 90 instruments in the orchestra.
Now, plans are under way to spruce up the long-neglected gem. The goal is to have the work completed in 2010, in time for the San Diego Symphony's Centennial Celebration.
Restoration is crucial, according to organ committee adviser Manuel J. Rosales, curator of Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall organ, which he helped design.
INSTRUMENT: Robert Morton organ
LOCATION: Copley Symphony Hall, downtown San Diego
PERFORMANCE: 8 p.m. Feb. 6-7, 2009, at the San Diego Symphony's “Silent Film Night: 'The Phantom of the Opera' ” (organist to be announced).
KEY COMMENT: “This organ is absolutely worth saving,” says Manuel J. Rosales, adviser to the San Diego Symphony organ committee.
“The (Symphony Hall) organ is on very thin ice – it could stop playing again,” said the L.A.-based organ expert. “Some bellows could burst. Some electrical thing could fail.”
Since 1993, when the organ starred in Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3 (“Organ Symphony”), it was used only intermittently and continued to deteriorate.
Plans are being finalized for the approximately $1 million renovation, which could involve everything from removing the paint covering the mahogany console to replacing antiquated wiring and adding computerized technology.
Spearheading the project is symphony music director Jahja Ling. Though the symphony considered replacing the Robert Morton with a new organ, Ling became a passionate supporter after hearing it played during an invitation-only demonstration in February. It was skillfully patched-together for the occasion by local organ builder Robert Knight.
JOHN R. MCCUTCHEN / Union-Tribune
The levers – called stop tablets – on the Robert Morton organ produce sound effects suitable for everything from classical music to silent movies.
“Everyone who attended was blown away by the grandeur and the beauty of this instrument,” Ling recalled. “An electronic/digital imitation can no more reproduce the real sound of a pipe organ than an electronic violin could reproduce the quality of the great string instruments of the artisans from Cremona.”
Symphony Hall's organ was made by the Van Nuys-based Robert Morton Organ Company, the nation's second-largest producer of theater organs (after Wurlitzer) in the 1920s.
Yet this particular instrument has an unusual history. It was originally installed in downtown's Balboa Theatre, which opened in 1924.
When the Balboa's owner, the Fox West Coast Corp., opened the Fox Theatre (now Copley Symphony Hall), the organ was moved there and played at the Fox's debut in 1929.
To make up for what was lost, the Balboa Theatre Foundation is restoring a later type of Robert Morton organ, called a Wonder Morton, that was installed in 1929 at Loew's Valencia Theatre in New York. On July 19, a benefit event will celebrate its installation at the Balboa; the organ's first performance there will take place this fall.
Though Symphony Hall's organ isn't as elaborate, its refined and multifaceted nature makes it well-suited to use in orchestra performances. Designed for silent movies, vaudeville and concerts, it can adapt to works by composers as different as Mahler and Poulenc, Saint-Saens and Copland.
“The Robert Morton is a versatile instrument – it can cross the line into classical,” said Rosales.
In recent months, the organ has proved its worth in both classical and pops concerts, including silent movie showings.
In February, it will join the orchestra in accompanying “The Phantom of the Opera,” the spooky Lon Chaney classic from 1925.
Such an event will allow patrons to return to a past era.
“Audiences then didn't want some meek sound to come from the organ,” said Rosales. “When a silent movie reached a climax, they wanted something really exciting.”
And that this organ can certainly deliver.
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